After months on the sidelines, the House Judiciary Committee will return to the spotlight next week to bring the impeachment process over the finish line.
Judiciary Democrats are rested, ready, and determined to keep the proceedings “as dull as possible,” according to one staffer for a committee Democrat. Coming on the heels of dramatic hearings in the House Intelligence Committee, there’s an emerging sense that Judiciary’s own hearings, which begin on Dec. 4 and are seen as a requirement of the impeachment process, aren’t meant to set off fireworks but to check boxes.
The strategy has been devised with the character of the Judiciary panel, which has a history of partisan sniping and no shortage of firebrands, in mind.
Democrats glance at the roster of committee Republicans—which includes hard-core Trump loyalists like Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Jim Jordan (R-OH)—and see the possibility for proceedings to go entirely off the rails. Indeed, many on the committee still feel burned by their last big oversight hearing in September, during which former Trump campaign chief Corey Lewandowski and his GOP sympathizers effectively turned the panel into a circus.
To that end, the Democratic staffer told The Daily Beast, party leaders have described the committee’s goal in open hearings as facilitating an “academic discussion” of impeachment. The committee’s first hearing will not feature any high-profile witnesses but a panel of legal experts who will explain “the application of the constitutional framework of high crimes and misdemeanors,” in the words of a Democratic committee aide speaking to reporters Tuesday.
The witnesses for the hearing, the aide added, will be “some of the most extremely eminent legal authorities, who will talk about the nature of impeachment, high crimes and misdemeanors, and applying that constitutional law to the facts and the evidence that exist.”
This phase, like much else with Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, will likely be brief. While party leaders have refused to commit to any kind of timeline, it’s expected that Judiciary’s “academic” explorations of impeachment will pave the way for formal consideration of articles of impeachment, which could reach the full House floor for a vote by year’s end.
“There’s an understanding that leadership would like for the process to go as quickly as possible through that committee,” another House Democratic aide put it, “because it is crazy.”
But these Judiciary Democrats—a group that includes some of the president’s most high-profile critics and some of the party’s sharpest communicators—have spent the last two months biding their time and anxiously waiting for their moment to return to the impeachment fray.
When the Ukraine allegations emerged in September, House Democratic leadership decided to give the Intelligence Committee and its chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the lead on investigating the extent of Trumpworld’s effort to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate his political rivals.
That move was widely seen on Capitol Hill as Speaker Nancy Pelosi hitting the reset button on an impeachment process that had struggled to gain traction in Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler’s committee amid stonewalling from the White House and some high-profile hearing busts, like Lewandowski’s appearance.
Judiciary’s long-established role as the sole committee with the authority to draw up articles of impeachment made a role in the process inevitable; however, there had been lingering questions on Capitol Hill as to how much work the panel would actually do.
The inquiry’s brisk timeline, and the nature of the Judiciary’s newly scheduled hearing, have led some Hill Democrats to the conclusion that there is little significant work left for the panel to do beyond write up the actual articles of impeachment. And Schiff’s Intelligence Committee will be providing the roadmap for that project: It is expected to send a detailed report with findings of the Ukraine investigation to Nadler when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill after the Thanksgiving holiday.
But factors outside leadership’s control—such as the courts—might complicate that plan to get it all over with as soon as possible. On Monday, a federal judge ordered former White House counsel Don McGahn to comply with a congressional subpoena, ruling that Trump has no standing to issue a blanket ban on his aides testifying.
McGahn is a central figure in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation—which had been the focus of Judiciary’s oversight efforts for most of the year—and could be called in for potentially explosive testimony if appeals courts uphold the judge’s order.
Some of Judiciary’s Democratic members, already suffering from an acute case of fear of missing out, are itching to question McGahn if that instant-blockbuster of an opportunity arises. But speaking to reporters on Tuesday, a Judiciary aide declined to say whether Democrats would draw out the impeachment inquiry in order to accommodate possible testimony from the president’s former top lawyer.
There is trepidation among some Democrats—remembering how the Mueller and Lewandowski hearings panned out—over the wisdom of chasing McGahn at this stage of an inquiry that has so far gone smoothly for Democrats.
“It’ll take entirely too long,” said a Democratic aide, “and risk the political support Democrats have.”